Loneliness, Longing, and Inherited Grief: Jean Kyoung Frazier Interviewed by Kayla Maiuri

A slacker novel that fights against the philosophy of brokenness, one Hot Cheetos bag at a time.

Pizza Girl

Jean Kyoung Frazier’s debut novel, Pizza Girl (Doubleday), is a story of unattainable desire. It’s narrated by an unnamed pizza delivery girl, twelve weeks pregnant and haunted by her alcoholic father’s death. Her days consist of dreary hours at the pizza shop before she heads home to an adoring but overbearing mother and her boyfriend. This routine is interrupted one day when the narrator answers the phone to take a pizza delivery order. “Her name was Jenny Hauser,” the novel begins, “and every Wednesday I put pickles on her pizza.” The two form a friendship, and for perhaps the first time in her life, the narrator feels enlivened and needed. It’s impossible to look away as this attraction transforms into dangerous obsession, armed with reckless behavior and life-altering choices.

Pizza Girl has been praised for its undeniable humor and wit, but its mastery lies in the carefully treaded waters of addiction and the ways this suffering can follow a person into adulthood. Frazier impressively explores the complexities of a young woman immobilized by childhood trauma, yearning for something more, but unwilling, or unable, to take action. 

—Kayla Maiuri

 

Kayla Maiuri I want to know which came first, the idea or the character?

Jean Kyoung Frazier The idea. I was in my last year of college and living in a house with six other messy, rowdy humans and a large, semi-potty-trained dog. We ordered pizzas one night, and after we paid the delivery guy my best friend and roommate, Dave, said to me, “What do you think that guy thinks of us? It’s the same guy every time.”

It got me thinking about my own weird summer delivering pizzas. While I had the job, I wasn’t thinking too deeply about it—just drove, listened to music, smoked weed, collected a paycheck and some free pizza. But in hindsight, it was easy to see the almost cinematic nature of the job. The opening of doors, a snapshot into someone’s life. I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how many different lives I was allowed to peek in on for a minute, maybe two.

The character came a couple years later, actually. Mostly because when I first had the idea, I wasn’t very comfortable in my own skin. I needed those years to grow more at ease with myself, my sexuality. As that ease grew, so did my desire to write a character with a voice close to my own, a voice that would’ve made eighteen-year-old me feel a little less ugly.

KMThe first chapter is brilliantly paced, a constellation of action and conversation that leads to that fateful meeting with Jenny Hauser. The buildup is mysterious and propelling—not to mention economic, as you manage to introduce every vital character along the way. I find beginnings almost impossible to write. Did the novel always begin this way, or was it woven together in the revision process?

JKFThe beginning stayed the same from start to finish. The classic question writers are told to ask themselves when they start a project is, “Why are you choosing to begin your story here?” And for me, the answer to that was always clear—I’m starting it here because I want the reader to be thrown aggressively into Pizza Girl’s world, to feel as swept up as she does by that first phone call, to have barely a moment to breathe. 

My mom once told me in the midst of one of our classic debates, “Jean! Say less!” She was being funny and a bit mean, but honestly, great advice! I think about that sentiment a lot when I’m writing—what am I really trying to say and what’s the most impactful way to do that?

I’m for sure insecure and have a childish fear of being boring; but especially with a novel like Pizza Girl—a slim, quick-paced, headache-inducing shit show—it felt important to be conscious about word choice, rhythm, knowing when to linger in a scene, when to skip ahead.

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Photo of Jean Kyoung Frazier by Vamsi Chunduru.

KM A major triumph in this novel is the dialogue. You reveal so much about your characters through the way they speak, their mannerisms, their choreography around the room. It’s very cinematic. What’s more, the narrator’s dialogue—often ambivalent, monosyllabic—is noticeably different from her interiority, which is fiery with obsession, yearning, and morose fantasy. Craft-wise, was this a difficult balance?

JKF I don’t know about difficult, but it was a very deliberate choice. A major theme of the novel is how easy it is to hide yourself, to swallow words. The quiet tragedy of the novel is that most of the characters problems, not just Pizza Girl’s, could be solved if they just opened their mouths and their hearts to the people in their lives. 

Narratively, having Pizza Girl’s interior be so loud, so achey, compared to her exterior was key in setting the novel’s mood, to pulling in the reader and having them feel her suffocation and loneliness. I don’t know if this novel would’ve worked in third person. With a character like her, who makes continually poor decisions, you have to be not just knee-deep but outright drowning in her point of view to find her toxicity understandable, to find it in yourself to empathize. 

KM Yes, a theme that stood out to me was this infuriating lack of communication. There is so much unspoken resentment, anger, and just plain annoyance living in the subtext of these conversations, particularly in moments when the narrator is alone with her boyfriend and mother—two people who are almost comically ignorant of her unhappiness. I’m thinking of the moment when the narrator says, “Mom, I don’t feel good. I haven’t felt good for a really long time.” Her mother assumes she is referring to pregnancy symptoms, and the narrator chooses not to correct her. Everyone in this house is lacking the tools to repair their relationships. 

My heart lurched when Billy tried to wipe vomit from the narrator’s mouth as her head hung over the toilet and she pushed him away to wipe it with her own sleeve. We feel for the narrator because she is dealing with unsettled trauma, but she’s also being deceitful to the people who care about her most while endangering her pregnancy. Were there any challenges in writing this character? My own novel features an “unlikeable” protagonist. For me, there is always the slight worry that people will misunderstand her or judge her too harshly. Did that ever cross your mind while writing? Even now, do you ever feel the need to defend her? 

JKF I feel tenderly towards Pizza Girl, but I don’t necessarily feel the need to defend her. I get why readers would judge her. For the entirety of the novel, she commits fuck up after fuck up, pushes away loving hands and people in her life that want good things for her—it’s often hard to stomach. While it for sure crossed my mind that her actions would turn a lot of people off, that there were definitely ways that I could soften her edges, I made a decision early on to resist those urges. Ultimately, I didn’t write this book to be likable, and I think that if you try to write something for everyone, it ends up being for no one. 

KM What do her breaks from reality represent to you? I noticed they occur in times of fear and uncertainty, like when the narrator hasn’t heard from Jenny in a few days and thus imagines the various ways she and her child could be suffering. But then there are more tender fantasies, such as the story of her father’s death—how he was found by the railroad tracks with a toy car in his hand. The narrator imagines that her father picked the toy car off the ground because it reminded him of how they used to play together.

JKF Well, let’s face it: Pizza Girl’s reality is quite bleak. She’s pregnant, grieving the death of a father she feels conflicted about, spiraling into alcoholism. Despite her eighteen years that make her legally an adult, she is still just a child unwilling to confront and address her past traumas, and as a result, is unable to even contemplate a healthy future for herself. Her fantasies allow her to cope but also make her sicker, further removed.

KM I’d love to talk more about this dynamic with her deceased father. Each night, after her mother and boyfriend have fallen asleep, the narrator sneaks into her father’s shed to sit in his armchair and watch infomercials from his tiny television. She also fantasizes of lighting a match and watching “the shed burn before her eyes.” Her relationship to her father is complicated and heavy. She’s grieving a person who has repeatedly failed her, neglected her, and put her life in danger. What was it like handling such a fraught dynamic?

JKF I handled it the way I try to handle everything I do, both on and off the page—with generosity. To be alive is to be messy. Some people are messier than others, but that doesn’t necessarily make them less lovable. It’s like you said, her father has repeatedly failed and neglected her, passed on traits to her that she wishes he hadn’t, yet Pizza Girl also has memories of her father that she can’t help but hold closely and dearly.

KM I’m very interested in the notion of inherited trauma. Can you talk more about this in relation to the narrator’s father? Is she aware that she’s following in his footsteps with both her reliance on alcohol and her disregard for the people around her? During one of their last conversations, her father tells her, “I think some people are just born broken. I think about life as one big laundromat and some people just have one little bag to do…but others, they have bags and bags of it…” Does the narrator believe she is “broken” like her father?

JKF To me, this is why the novel is ultimately hopeful. Because for all of Pizza Girl’s damage, despite her many fuckups and her increased awareness of her similarities to her dead, destructive father, there are still moments where she fights against his philosophy of brokenness. Even more beautifully, she still has so much time to be more than him, to be a better parent than him, to have a life of her own making.

KM One of my favorite moments occurs when the narrator awkwardly slips into Jenny’s home as she’s grabbing cash to pay for her pizza. The narrator glances into the living room, taking note of the Hot Cheetos bag on the couch, T-shirts strewn on the floor, the amateur paintings propped on kitchen chairs. The narrator wants to save Jenny. She tells us this over and over: Jenny had “a voice that needed to be cradled, tucked in gently each night.” But, as readers, we know something else is happening here. This narrator isn’t capable of rescuing anyone. Why is she so drawn to Jenny?

JKF So much of Jenny’s appeal is her chaos. There’s a spark in her, a kind of roar, that Pizza Girl feels echoed in herself. To see that wildness in a woman who is older, a mother, gives Pizza Girl not quite hope, but maybe something closer to relief—messiness is not restricted to a certain age.

Pizza Girl has all these lovely people in her life, but tragically, it’s their loveliness that is so repelling to her. She’s so disgusted with herself that it’s hard for her to stand next to them, her darkness seeming so much darker when compared to their light. With Jenny, she doesn’t feel that. It’s like Jenny’s equal, if not greater, chaos gives Pizza Girl permission to breathe and slouch without fear of being told to stand up straight.

KM Your novel is lauded for its humor and slacker sensibility—you’ve had more than a few comparisons to Halle Butler and Ottessa Moshfegh. I’m curious to know, who were you reading at the time of writing this novel? Were you inspired by anyone?

JKF Those are two generous and cool comparisons. I can’t really remember what I was reading at the time of writing though, and I think that’s because I was mostly inspired by what I wasn’t reading. I feel like the construction and catalyst of this novel was generated by me asking myself the question, over and over, “What haven’t I seen before?” And then the natural follow up, “Why the hell haven’t I seen that before?”

Like, it’s always bothered me that most Los Angeles-set novels involve Hollywood and beaches. It’s annoying that slacker fiction is so dominated by men, women relegated to bitching and moaning as these men fuck around aimlessly without consequence. I hate when “Asian” is used as a personality trait. I feel like it’s rare to see women in fiction take a shit. I am baffled that I’ve been alive for twenty-seven years without seeing a bag of Hot Cheetos in literary fiction.

So, basically, whatever I write in the future will always include at least one bag of Hot Cheetos.

Pizza Girl is available for purchase here.

Kayla Maiuri’s debut novel is forthcoming from Riverhead Books. She holds an MFA in fiction from Columbia University. Born in the Greater Boston area, she now lives in Brooklyn.

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